Where Dickens met Chicken

Main picture: York Conservation Trust chief executive Philip Thake inside the De Grey Rooms ballroom and, below, inspecting 66-71 Micklegate, the trust's latest project
Main picture: York Conservation Trust chief executive Philip Thake inside the De Grey Rooms ballroom and, below, inspecting 66-71 Micklegate, the trust's latest project
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The Morrell family have spent over half a century preserving the city’s historic properties. Michael Hickling reports on their latest project. Pictures by Simon Hulme.

York’s historic Theatre Royal has just been sold for £1. It sounds like a snip, except that this repository of 281 years of theatrical history comes with an added cost: some £320,000 must be spent immediately to repair the roof and other parts of the building which are in poor condition.

Main picture: York Conservation Trust chief executive Philip Thake inside the De Grey Rooms ballroom and, below, inspecting 66-71 Micklegate, the trust's latest project

Main picture: York Conservation Trust chief executive Philip Thake inside the De Grey Rooms ballroom and, below, inspecting 66-71 Micklegate, the trust's latest project

The sellers, York council, can’t afford it, the new owners can. York Conservation Trust has a reputation for making exhausted buildings fit for the 21st century and the Theatre Royal will be the jewel in the YCT crown.

The theatre site is a classic case of what local tourist guides like to describe as York’s layer cake history. There’s a Roman well under the stage and there are remains of a 12th century hospital. The main body of the building is Georgian with a Victorian exterior, a concrete and glass extension was added in the 1960s.

From where Philip Thake is standing the layer cake does not look too appetising.

We are inside the gloomy shell of a property in Micklegate, where parts of a battered laminated floor have been stripped to reveal Italian tiles beneath. In other areas the concrete floor has been gouged out down to the steel reinforcing.

Up some dodgy stairs lie a couple of apartments, unused for decades. The only signs of human habitation are a couple of fireplaces, maybe from the 1950s.

We are inspecting a chilly and defunct Indian curry house which before the Asian makeover had been an Italian restaurant. Not much history here then, you might suppose, best to knock it down.

Yet all being well, in about 18 months’ time this blot on the streetscape will have been restored as an architectural gem and re-invented so as to pay its way. The Morrell family, whose mission is to save the landmarks of old York from oblivion, have decided to buy it. It’s a formula they have been applying since the end of the Second World War.

A local businessman, John Bowes Morrell and his brother Cuthbert began buying dilapidated but unique medieval buildings and formed a company in 1945. In 1976 ownership of all the properties was bequeathed to a new charity, the YCT. Today it has ten trustees, all Morrells by birth or by marriage. Philip Thake is its chief executive.

The tacky curry house exterior of 69-71 Micklegate is deceptive. When first built, the effects of the Civil War were still being felt. An original staircase and roof timbers are two of the principal reasons why it is worth saving. But its intrinsic value does not lie solely in the bricks and mortar. There’s also a case to make for a compelling literary connection.

This used to be the Victorian home and office of a man whose eccentricities are familiar throughout the world: Richard Chicken. Never heard of him? Initially an actor, and then a clerk at various establishments, Chicken apparently provided Charles Dickens with the inspiration for David Copperfield’s Mr Micawber whose recipe for happiness – ‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery’ – is oft quoted.

A well-known figure on York’s Victorian scene, Chicken was a grandiloquent loser, sponger, and father of twelve. He spent his career struggling to stay afloat in a sea of money worries and he lived his domestic life, just as Wilkins Micawber does, in the expectation that something would turn up.

The then occupants of 69-71 Micklegate were the York and North Midland Railway. In 1849 they took on Chicken as a clerk and he and his wife and family lived in apartments above the office.

The link between Chicken and Micawber was Alfred Dickens, the younger brother of Charles, and a colleague of Chicken’s in this office. Alfred was a supervising engineer on the branch line being built to Scarborough and Charles would come to the office to visit. He can’t have failed to notice his brother’s larger-than-life colleague – more about Chicken later.

Philip Thake finds pleasure in the rescue of 69-71 Micklegate because it marks a step forward in the rehabilitation of a street which has looked down-at-heel and is associated at weekends with drinkers doing the Micklegate Run. There are fewer runners these days, although hen and stag parties uphold the tradition.

It’s the street where he started his working life in the city as an accountant, in the same building where the YCT is now based – a former town house built in 1796. His office overlooking Holy Trinity church must be the handsomest workplace in York.

“When I was first here in the seventies and eighties, Micklegate was thriving,” he says. “It’s York’s great street, the main entry to the city. I remember us all leaning out of the windows when the Queen came – we had to be vetted first.”

He came up from Essex to college in Leeds in 1965 and worked as a PE and Maths teacher at Bradford Grammar School before re-training as an accountant in Leeds. He retired a couple of years ago and works part time as boss of a staff comprising a property manager, a joiner and an admin person. The first architect they have employed starts work in February.

It’s a tiny team considering what’s been achieved. Everywhere in York their handiwork stands as a testament to their effectiveness. Landmark buildings such as the De Grey Rooms, Assembly Rooms and Fairfax House or smaller scale properties – all have been restored and given an economic as well as a historic reason for existing.

Philip Thake’s walking guide to them lists 108 properties. St Anthony’s Hall on Peasehome Green, built in 1446, is one of their more recent triumphs. “No-one would have bought it because of the £1m needed to underpin it,” says Philip. The same with 69-71 Micklegate – it was commercially not viable.”

The total bill for the YCT for St Anthony’s Hall was over £2m. Within its precincts there’s now a popular Italian restaurant and delicatessen, artists’ studios, a quilt museum and a superbly landscaped garden.

“We don’t charge top rents because we try to get people started in business, although there has to be a surplus, of course, for us to continue what we are doing” adds Philip Thake. “We wouldn’t buy a building that needs nothing doing. We’d just say, ‘no. it doesn’t need us’.”

Sometimes the council comes to them and says, “would this be of interest to you?”

Other properties are acquired through the usual commercial means – they have just bought another through sealed bids but are not saying which until contracts are exchanged. They lost out to a Leeds property company with a sealed bid to buy the former council offices in St Leonard’s Place. It’s the closest thing York has to the Royal Crescent at Bath. Philip Thake has strong views about the state of the property after plans to turn it into a five-star boutique hotel came to nothing.

“It’s so frustrating and I rant and rave because it’s now such an eyesore. The council should have insisted that whoever bought it should have to decorate the outside. It’s the sort of thing we’d have done straight away.”

Medieval buildings are hotter properties now than they were in 1945. Commercial operators also see the potential. Lendal Tower beside Lendal Bridge for example was turned into a private residence.

Is there ever going to be an end for the Morrells’ mission, when York’s supply of quirky old buildings is found to be finite? “There will come a day when there’s nothing left to purchase. But we don’t own the Minster yet.”

Upstairs at 69-71 Micklegate is some tattered wallpaper, a fragment one which has been sent away for testing to determine its age. Early guesses suggest it’s old enough to have been put up by Richard Chicken. It’s generally thought that Charles Dickens based Mr Micawber on his father John Dickens, another fantasist and chronic spendthrift. But on his visits to Alfred in Micklegate, Charles Dickens must have become aware of Chicken, a man who played out his tale of financial misfortune in the public eye.

He placed notices in the newspapers advertising the fact and spent much of his time writing begging letters to people of influence.

Chicken was too big a character for a novelist to pass up, especially one whose weakness for theatricality aligned closely with his own.

A York local historian, Hugh Murray, has unearthed many of Chicken’s letters and self-advertisements. His research is on a website, dedicated to celebrating Chicken’s life, set up by his great-great-granddaughter Sandra Midgeley.

Chicken was variously a lawyer’s clerk, an actor, an elocution teacher (or Professor of Elocution and Lecturer on Defective Enunciation), a schoolmaster, and a railway clerk. His conduct and his florid literary style might have been lifted directly onto the pages of David Copperfield. In his own words, Chicken was a man who “could vie with Pythagoras for sobriety and with Scipio for continence…”

In one of his begging letters, to York’s Lord Mayor, he added as a postscript that if the mayor did not have a job, or money, to offer did he perhaps have an old pair of trousers, or a coat, he could have? Chicken’s long-suffering wife came to the end of her tether when he pawned her spectacles.

At the end of David Copperfield, Mr Micawber emigrates to Australia and becomes a success. No such luck for Richard Chicken. He sank into the York workhouse where he wrote plaintively that, “The Confinement and the Society would kill him”. And it did in 1866.

So was he really the model for Mr Micawber, the landlord who takes in the ten year-old David Copperfield when he arrives in London? The dates sort of match-up. The complete David Copperfield was published in 1850, although the first of the monthly serial instalments came out in May 1849. Dickens wrote at incredible speed, so it’s possible he could have introduced Mr Micawber into the serial just after bumping into Richard Chicken on a trip to York, or after hearing of his exploits It’s an intriguing question. Maybe it could be asked by way of a plaque when his old address is restored.

• For more information about Richard Chicken’s connection to Charles Dickens visit his great-great-granddaughter Sandra Midgeley’s website: www.sandramidgeley.com